The Secret of the Dreidel

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The dreidel.

A children’s game, played in the firelight of a cold winter night, the menora silently glowing in the window… The dreidel. four sides spinning around the still point in the turning circle; spinning so fast that its sides blur into nothingness… The dreidel. So seemingly insignificant - and yet this little dreidel contains the story of the Jewish people; the history of the whole world.

Our story starts not with the miracle of Chanuka, but 1,437 years earlier with Yaakov’s ladder. Yaakov had a prophetic dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder that reached from the ground to the heavens. These angels weren’t hollywood extras with fluorescent tubes over their heads - they were incorporeal spiritual messengers, the protecting forces of four great kingdoms. four kingdoms that would in the future dominate and exile the Jewish people: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

At first, Yaakov saw the angel of Babylon ascend the ladder seventy steps and then he came down - the Jewish people were in the Babylonian exile for seventy years. The protecting angel of the empire of Persia and Media then climbed up the ladder fifty-two steps before he descended - the Jewish people were in exile in Persia fifty-two years. Then the angel of the empire of Greece climbed 180 rungs - the domination of Greece lasted 180 years. finally, the protecting angel of the Roman empire climbed up the ladder, but he didn’t come down; he kept going up and up and up. Yaakov feared that this final exile would never end until God promised him that even if the angel were to rise up like an eagle and make his nest among the stars, he would bring about his eventual fall.

We are still in that final exile, in the softly asphyxiating embrace of Rome’s spiritual heirs…

THE FOUR KINGDOMS:

Babylon
In the year 3338 (422 BCe), the first of our holy Temples was razed to the ground by the Babylonian emperor nevuchadnetzar. The offerings brought in the Beit haMikdash represented a unique pipeline between God and man. When these ceased, the flow of spiritual energy was severed. This connection is symbolized by the word nefesh, “soul” (“When a soul brings an offering” - Vayikra 2:1). Nefesh begins with the letter nun, and nun represents the kingdom of Babylon.

Persia
In Megillat Esther, haman found the final solution to the Jewish problem - genocide. The exile of Persia and Media represents the threat to the body of the Jewish people - the “guf,” the physical threat of annihilation. Guf begins with gimmel, which stands for the kingdom of Persia and Media.

Greece
Greece, on the other hand, represents the attack on the Torah - the wisdom of Israel. The hebrew word for “intellect” is sechel. The Greeks weren’t interested in the physical destruction of the Jewish people; rather, they wanted to destroy the Torah, Judaism’s spiritual core, and leave a hellenized hulk that would conform to the Greek norms of aesthetics - the superficial wisdom. Sechel begins with the letter sin - that’s the letter of the kingdom of Greece.

Rome
The fourth kingdom, Rome, is the summation of all the other exiles. At the beginning of their dominion, the Romans, like the Babylonians, stopped the offerings in the Temple. Then they destroyed the Second holy Temple and inflicted unthinkable carnage on the “guf,” the body of the Jewish people - after the massacre of Betar, they used Jewish blood as fertilizer for seven years.

At first, Rome was the intellectual scion of Greece, but with the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in 313 Ce, the Catholic Church became the spiritual heir of the Roman empire. After the demise of the influence of the Church, the mantle of Rome was subsequently worn by secularism and materialism - the spiritual incarnation of Rome in our own times.

Rome is all the exiles rolled into one, and thus it is represented by the hebrew word hakol, meaning “all.” Its first letter is the letter heh. Where is the point at the center of a circle? Can you define it? And yet it exists, just like the letter yud in the hebrew alphabet - a single dot from which the whole universe was created. There is a still point in the turning circle around which the whole world turns. The Jewish people are that little dot - so infinitesimally small, and yet around this immutable dot the world turns.

What is the opposite of that little dot, that central point that occupies no space? north, south, east, and west. expansion in four directions. four is the antithesis of the One. four is the number of the kingdoms that stand eternally opposed to he who is One, who stand eternally opposed to his reflection in this world - the Jewish people. Take another look at our dreidel spinning. What do you see? four sides. Spinning around a central point that occupies no space. And when those sides spin, they themselves cease to have direction anymore. now, in the blur of their whirling, they are a circle, a reflection of the still small point at its center.

What is it that is carved on the sides of our dreidel? Nun, gimmel, sin, heh… On one level, those letters stand for “Nes gadol hayah sham - A great miracle happened there.” The commemoration of a miraculous victory of a faithful few over the might of the Greek empire. On a deeper level, however, the dreidel is a microcosmic representation of the four kingdoms - Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome spinning around the center, the Jewish people. And the hand that spins the dreidel comes from above…

Every empire thinks that it will last forever, but the hand above only spins the dreidel of history for a predetermined time, and then each empire, despite its vainglorious boasting, falters on its axis and crashes.

The dreidel. A children’s game, played in the firelight of a cold winter night, the menora silently glowing in the window… The dreidel. Its four sides spinning around the still point in the turning circle, spinning so fast that its sides blur into nothingness… The dreidel. So seemingly insignificant - and yet this little dreidel contains the story of the Jewish people; the history of the whole world…

Posted in: Jewish Holidays

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